About one-third of UT students are eligible for the Federal Pell Grant Program, a statistic exceeding the national average for public institutions according to a 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education report.
Last week, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek traveled to Washington D.C. alongside leaders from approximately 100 higher-education institutions for the College Opportunity Summit.
Gathering representatives and leaders from private, public and community colleges across the nation, the summit rallied support for programs specifically geared toward high-achieving, low-income students.
"We have identified assisting low-income students as a high priority for us," Cheek said. "We have the Pledge and Promise scholarships that help those students go to school in addition to the HOPE and the Pell. So when you put the HOPE and Pell and other scholarships together, it makes us much more accessible than most universities."
Other schools in attendance included LSU, the University of Arkansas, Yale and the University of California system. Every university invited was challenged to create and submit innovative programs benefiting this student demographic.
In response, UT's Top 25 implementation team drew up three new programs to recruit, retain and graduate low-income students with academic potential.
These programs include a summer math camp, a coaching program to promote college readiness and an expanded transfer system with community colleges.
"If you look at the metrics for Top 25 universities, the only metric we currently meet the goal in is the quality of our students," Cheek said. "Our students are already in the Top 25. But the financial resources are an issue with many of our students."
Starting this summer, the proposed math camp will target incoming freshmen interested in math-intensive majors who do not have the strong ACT math scores needed for success in areas like engineering or biochemistry. Although there will be a fee to attend the camp, students will be able to apply for scholarships.
A pilot version of the mentorship program is already underway, using volunteer coaches to mentor students who face barriers to success at the university level, such as coming from a low-achieving high school or having never taken an AP class.
The coaching program aims to ease the transition from high school to college.
"We started it without any money," Cheek said. "We got volunteers to do it, and we think it's successful. And we will modify that and implement it more fully in the fall."
A substantial expansion of the transfer program is also a priority. A new community college coordinator was recently hired to improve communication between the university and community colleges.
"We are going to be more specific than the pathways that have been identified," Cheek said, "so when you go to a community college you know exactly which courses to take."
As the first member of his family to attend college, Cheek said he understands the importance of guidance.
"If I hadn't gone to my adviser and gotten some help, I might not have done so well," Cheek said. "There was some struggle that I had because no one else in my family had gone down that path.
"We all struggle, but struggle is important. We learn from struggle."
Margie Nichols, vice-chancellor for communications, attended UT Martin as a first-generation college student, funding her education primarily through loans and scholarships. Supportive programs, Nichols believes, would have aided her adjustment to college life.
"I was scared," Nichols said. "I was afraid that I was going to fail. It's an adjustment because you don't know what you're walking into, and your parents don't know what you're walking into, and they can't really help you. You're really dependent on your university for help."
Yet, First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking to a room of higher education leaders on Jan. 16 expressed confidence that, through these same socio-economic difficulties, students develop advantages over more privileged counterparts.
"In facing and overcoming these challenges, these kids have developed skills like grit and resilience that many of their peers will never be able to compete with – never," Obama said. "And when they get out in the world, those are the exact skills they will need to succeed.
"And they will succeed."